On Wednesday, April 27th — just two days from now — Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman to be sent to death row in Texas, was set to be executed.
In breaking news, Texas’s highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, ruled today that the execution should be halted and that the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct brought up by Lucio’s attorneys should be reviewed in a new trial due to allegations of suppressed and false testimony in Lucio’s original conviction.
While the immediate threat of execution has been postponed, Lucio’s fate is still in the hands of the Texas justice system.
The Twitter account @freemellucio has been keeping the public informed on the progress of her appeals and the many calls for clemency.
This morning, Melissa Lucio gave the following message to her friends Sabrina Van Tassel and Sandra Jonas to be delivered to her supporters and all that have advocated for her innocence as she awaits the decision of the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles: pic.twitter.com/2z77FPCMQ6
— Free Melissa Lucio (@freemellucio) April 25, 2022
In 2008, 53-year-old Melissa Elizabeth Lucio was convicted of capital murder for the death of her two-year-old daughter, Mariah. It is a death that advocates for Lucio say was an accident. 38-years-old at the time, Lucio has spent the past 15 years behind bars, all while maintaining her innocence.
After Lucio’s conviction, evidence was unveiled revealing what many consider to be a miscarriage of justice. It was considered a case that was biased from the beginning, biased against a woman with little education, who lived in poverty, and who had a history of physical and sexual abuse against her.
In a bi-partisan effort, 32 House Republicans and eight Republican Senators joined their Democratic colleagues in asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for a reprieve, in a move spearheaded by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Collin County), co-chairs of the Criminal Justice Reform Committee. Leach and Moody questioned the current District Attorney for Cameron County, Luis Saenz. They also met with Lucio and confirmed what those who know Lucio best have maintained — that Lucio had no history of violence.
In the 2020 documentary film, The State of Texas vs. Melissa by Sabrina Van Tassel, interviews were captured by those close to the case and close to Melissa, including her children.
“I didn’t see my mom being violent. When my mom would get after us, it was a pinch on our arm, or a pat on the butt. She was always so calm. She was a good mom to us,” Lucio’s older daughter Daniella said in the documentary.
While Melissa admitted during interrogation to spanking Mariah that day, she denied doing so with the force to cause significant harm or death.
Those in support of Melissa have made claims that her defense was insufficient. They accuse her defense attorney, Peter Gilman, of not giving his client the best defense he could. Gilman met with his client for the first time only 15 minutes before her arraignment. Melissa claims that Gilman tried to persuade her to take a 30 yr deal offered by then prosecutor Armando Villalobos.
In the film, Melissa recounts their conversation:
“Well Ms. Lucio, how old are you right now? Well, look at the good side. If you take 30 years, you’ll be 68 when you come out. And you’ll be able to see your children again,” Lucio quotes Gilman as telling her.
She refused. It should be noted that before being assigned Melissa Lucio’s case, Gilman had previously run for District Attorney and lost. Immediately after her conviction, he would be hired by the office as an ADA. The prosecutor in the case, Mr. Villalobos, would be convicted of corruption and sentenced to 13 years in federal prison in 2014.
Assistant US Attorney Michael Wynne was the lead prosecutor in Villalobos’ trial. He exposed a corrupt “pay to play” system of justice. Villalobos was charged with nine counts of public corruption, including taking over $100K in bribes from defense lawyers, and allegations of extortion and favoritism. According to Wynne, it was like “having a district attorney on retainer.”
After Melissa’s conviction, she had new attorneys who were committed to proving that the mother of 14 – Melissa was pregnant at the time of her conviction, giving birth to twins shortly after going to prison – was innocent. Their work included going through thousands of pages of documents and going over testimony in Melissa’s favor that was never presented at trial because Peter Gilman refused to include it.
Dr. John Pinkerton, a Licensed Psychologist, interviewed Lucio in prison before the first trial. Here is his assessment:
“From what I put together, my formulation for her, is that she found a way of finding meaning in her life in her role as a mother. In my review of all the background information, she didn’t meet the criteria for mothers who kill their children.”
Those criteria are (1) having a mental illness, (2) retaliatory actions against the child, and (3) a history of violence. He concluded that Lucio didn’t fit that profile. Yet he wasn’t called by Gilman to testify.
Lucio’s son Bobby, eight years old at the time of her trial, told Van Tassel in the documentary, “They didn’t really ask any of us who were actually there, what happened. My mom, she just wasn’t the one to like, discipline us.” Melissa’s sister Diane also weighed in:
“Peter Gilman, he never talked to us, he didn’t acknowledge us. We were nobody. You would think that a attorney that is trying to defend your sister, he would wanna know something about us. And he never, never. Nobody spoke on her behalf. Nobody.”
Prosecution witness Dr. Vargas – who claimed to be the attending physician the night Mariah arrived at the hospital – said Mariah’s injuries were the “worst case of abuse he’s ever seen.” But the actual attending physician, Dr. Davis, refuted that. Dr. Davis was never called to testify, writing in Lucio’s clemency appeal:
“The presence of active infection at the time of death suggests alternative medical explanations for the bruising and internal bleeding that should have been explored.”
There were also reports of a blood coagulation disorder which would have explained the bruising on Mariah’s body.
Lucio’s Habeas Attorney, Margaret Schmucker said that Child Protection Services reports gave no indication that Lucio was violent towards any of her children. There was no history of physical abuse.
In June of 2008, mitigation specialist Norma Villanueva brought attention to another potential suspect, Lucio’s teenage daughter, Alexandra. In an interview with Alexandra, Villanueva wrote that the teen was “angry that day as Mariah was always crying and getting in between the other children” during sibling play. The social worker also said Alexandra told her that she was the “reason Mariah fell down the stairs.” Villanueva took her findings to Gilman but was dismissed, writing in her report:
“I was instructed by Mr. Gilman not to alert anyone or ‘make known’ this information obtained from Alexandra to anyone as it would result in criminal charges for this daughter. I questioned this as it served to changed the entire trial for Ms. Lucio. I was instructed again not to make this known to anyone.”
In the Van Tassel documentary, Alexandra admitted to not loving her baby sister but denies causing the toddler any harm.
The Innocence Project, on Lucio’s behalf, filed a motion for the presiding Judge Gabriela Garcia to recuse herself from the case. Moreover, the prosecution was dismissed for violation of Texas’ “Hard and Fast Rules of Disqualification,” due to the conflict of interest between the parties when previous defense attorney Gilman went to work for the District Attorney now prosecuting Lucio’s case. Gilman’s wife, Irma was his paralegal at the time. Irma is now the court administrator for Judge Garcia, who is overseeing the trial.
An appeals court overturned Lucio’s conviction in October 2019. It was a unanimous decision that Melissa Lucio was denied a “complete defense.” The appeals court also found that by not being allowed to challenge prosecution witnesses by calling expert witnesses, her trial was “fundamentally unfair.” When a 10-7 decision by the appeals court reinstated the verdict, a brief was filed with the Supreme Court. In 2021, the court declined to hear the case.
Several jurors who voted to convict Melissa Lucio have spoken out against her execution, including the foreperson, Ms. Quintanilla. She stated in a clemency report:
“I was disheartened to learn that there was additional evidence that was not presented at trial. I believe that Ms. Lucio deserves a new trial and for a new jury to hear this evidence. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think she should be executed.”
Poverty, lack of education, a history of childhood trauma, and abuse; a viable alternative suspect, potential prosecutorial bias, and misconduct; a lackluster defense and no witnesses called in support of the defendant – all of these factors have raised concerns among advocacy groups, women’s, and anti-violence groups. The State of Texas limits the Governor’s powers to a one-time 30-day stay. Anything more would have to come via recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles which has only done so twice.
Now Lucio’s future will depend on a new trial examining all of the issues in her unsatisfactory defense. Let’s hope that her pending death sentence is finally and irrevocably commuted when the latest legal action is complete and that Melissa Lucio finally gets the justice that she deserves.
Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick